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What is it about Cinderella anyway? March 7, 2007

Posted by erinsull in general considerations, Working Girl.
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From the first frames of Working Girl (the crowded Staten Island ferry carrying the workers to the elite part of the city) it is clear that class issues are going to take center stage. We learn early on that Tess is a working class woman who has scrapped together and education. She has big hair, gaudy jewelry and an accent she feels she needs to overcome to get ahead (the now familiar Eliza Doolittle scenario). Despite all this (and of course her “bod for sin”) she has a “head for business”. Every review I read of the movie referred to it as a modern Cinderella story. So this story has a familiar pattern but what exactly is this story trying to say about class relationships, particularly when it comes to women? Throughout the movie all those who underestimate Tess (Catherine, her boss in the beginning) because of assumptions they made based on her class are left humiliated. So I guess it can be seen as the don’t judge a book by its cover cliché, that we shouldn’t assume that class and intelligence and business savvy are correlated. Still, I’m having trouble buying that the movie is really saying something more general about how we see the lower classes. Tess is presented so clearly as an exception to her class. We are shown that Tess has more going for her then the rest of her Staten Island crew; she is smarter and more driven. This is why she deserves the high-class life and the high-class man.

Jack sees something different in Tess that he falls in love with, just as Prince Charming falls for Cinderella because she has something different from the rest of the maidens at the ball. There is something about their class that makes them so alluring, something that a simple external makeover can’t hide. In her review for the New York Times Janet Maslin states that Tess has “an unbeatable mixture of street smarts, business sense and sex appeal”. A Washington Post review commented that Tess was “Equal parts vulnerability and fiduciary pluck”. Yes Tess has got the smarts and she knows it but something about her station in life makes her humble, vulnerable and skeptical of her worth. This is in a direct comparison to the brazen, self-assure; high class all her life Catherine. This vulnerability makes Tess somehow more feminine in the eyes of Jack, for instance when he sees her at the bar and comments that she “dresses like a woman, not like a man thinks a woman would dress if he were a woman”. She oozes an overt sexuality that is not present in the uptight and polished Catherine, the woman Jack is desperately trying to leave. This is evident in their body shape as well; Tess is curvy and sensual, while in the end Catherine is ridiculed for her “bony-ass”. Maybe its an East Coast thing but I had it indoctrinated in me growing up that high class woman were covered up, proper and streamlined, which can often be seen as rigid and almost masculine. In Tess Jack sees that femininity and sensuality he has been missing in his high-class world.

This Cinderella cliché is a prevalent one in depictions of females and class in popular culture. It is the working class girl with the heart of gold whose brains elevate her past her class. Still because of her class she is somehow more feminine and alluring, maybe because no one has taught her not to be. Pretty Woman, which came out just two years later, is a lot in the same vain. A more modern Cinderella could be Joey Potter from Dawson’s Creek, I admit rather important example in my adolescence. Joey was the girl from the wrong side of the creek whose smarts elevate her out of her “rough” background (her Dad is a drug dealer after all, and her sister has a child out of wedlock). Joey’s insecurities prevent her from realizing how beautiful and alluring to men she is. I know it is a rather silly example but I think the fact that it appears in everything from Oscar nominated films, to late 90’s teen melodramas shows how prevalent the Cinderella scenario is.

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